Manning the Guns: A look into the future of Hearts of Iron 4

By Joe Robinson 22 May 2018 1

Fun fact: Hearts of Iron 4 recently passed 1 million sales. Due to the rules around publicly traded companies in Sweden they’re not allowed to say exactly when that happened (apparently it was a Tuesday); but it must have been recent enough to talk about it for the first time at this year’s PDXCon. Another fun fact: On average, it is the most played out of all Paradox grand-strategy titles in terms of monthly users on Steam.

I first started playing Paradox titles in 2009 with the release of Hearts of Iron 3. While I’m not a ‘true’ grognard in terms of my personal gaming history, I loved the bonkers complexity of HoI 3 and well understand how fans of past games could feel there was something missing from Hearts of Iron 4. I mentioned last year there is a war raging for the soul of Hearts of Iron: As we look back and reflect on the two previously released expansions, as well as the plans for the upcoming ‘Man the Guns’ update, it can be now said that this is a war that that WW2 purists are losing.

“I didn’t really see HoI taking off this way,” Game Director Dan Lind said to me in our interview. “We didn’t even think Alt history would take off early on – which we’ve now learned people love. The German choice is now 50/50, which is pretty huge.”

While computer war games in general have shown a reluctance to evolve over the past couple of decades, it’s oddly gratifying to see that Hearts of Iron 4’s ‘broad strokes’ approach to wargaming has managed to find an audience, especially since it hasn’t made our initial list of top WW2 war games. Even I miss the granularity that came with HoI3’s chain of command mechanics, but I suspect it was something that was never meant to really be part of the series’ DNA to being with. There are plenty of great realistic/hardcore wargames for WW2 enthusiasts, and Hearts of Iron is now in a position where it no longer needs to specifically cater to that crowd. This is true to the point where alternate-history sandbox options are being designed with as much care and attention as real-world history options.

“Even if it’s a path we don’t think people are going to pick, it’s important to have them there for the feeling of having that choice…. The number of people coming into HoI… I mean HoI4 was originally created for people who wanted to play a WW2 strategy game, but now we’ve got all kinds of people playing the game in different ways.

I really think we need some settings and tools to allow people to tailor what happens to the world. So, you can set up a ‘scenario’ beforehand… HoI 4 will always be a World War 2 game, I think. Even if we expand it or something. At the core it will be WW2.”

That kind of granular control over your game is a long-term ideal; for the short-term at least, the dev team’s focus is very much on ‘doing the rounds’. Land and Air mechanics have been improved, so Naval is next. The team also have a priority list in terms of what nations they’d like to overhaul and give more options, with USA being their next target in Man the Guns.

“We also have a schedule for which nations we think should get a face-lift. America is like the second or third most popular nation, and honestly, I think their experience is pretty lacking right now, and they are a big naval nation! So, it really fits to tie those two things together. It’s sticking out like a sore thumb to me. There’s a lot of systems that also tie into it that you might not think about.”

Man the Guns will see both the US, and the UK get new focus trees to bring them in line with the emerging strength of the alt-history narrative, best encapsulated by Germany. Given that these two are democracies also, Democratic nations in general are being given some love and some mechanics to make the ideology really stand out. At the moment, Lind describes them as being “limited Axis nations”, so there’s a need that can be addressed. This will include the usual alt-history and alt-ideology variants, as well as some brand-new nations.

The other major non-specific feature is the return of Fuel: A staple of past HoI games, the life-blood of armoured warfare makes a return. Stockpiles will be limited – buildings will be needed to hold fuel, which will compete with existing industry slots and you will need to make tactical choices as to when and where you use the things that need fuel. This will encompass air, land and sea, so you will have a lot of demands on your fuel consumption. This also effects unit balancing – the team can feel more confident in making tanks extra powerful if they know that a player may not even be able to give them enough fuel to move, for example.

Largely though, this expansion will focus on naval warfare, with a round-up of headline features including:

Ship Design: You can design the specific load-out and class of your ship to make each one semi-unique. This will involve more research avenues as you unlock new parts, chassis and weapons, as well as concepts like ‘Peace-time training’. Refitting your ships will now also be an important aspect of maintaining your navy – much better than simply building a new ship. Ships getting refitted will disappear from the map and go back into the production queue.

Sea Terrain: in a move reminiscent of what Stellaris has done post 2.0, different sea zones will have ‘terrain’ features to represent how different sea areas behaved differently. The seas around the Swedish archipelago, for example, could allow for entire fleets to hide amongst the landmass, while something like the Atlantic might be prone to bad weather, which will affect the performance of smaller vessels. Also, sharks.

New spotting system: at the moment, the fleet mechanics basically mean that everyone finds everyone else eventually – there’s no consideration given to units that may not want to be found, like Submarines. Fleets in general will also disengage a lot easier, which is trying to tackle the problem of ‘decisive’ naval engagements being too easy to trigger (which is counter to how WW2 naval warfare unfolded). Really, big fleet-on-fleet engagements revolved around specific strategic concerns; important islands or areas that need attacking or defending at all costs.

Task Forces: The team want to make fleets smaller to avoid 'deathballs', which is reminiscent of the same problem Stellaris as. Instead of fleet’s, there will now be ‘Task Forces’ which will have composition and size restrictions but will also have better behaviour options. Being able to set AO’s, what they do within that AO, granular rules of engagement etc…

MtG 2

There’s also going to be more interfaces and tools to give players more feedback in terms of how a naval engagement panned out and why, to inform your naval strategy going forward. Admirals are getting the same makeover as Generals got in Waking the Tiger, and there will be an influx of new assignable traits which will let you tailor your Admirals to suit specific roles.

The line between Man the Guns and the free 1.6 ‘Ironclad’ update is very much blurred right now: Fuel itself is definitely a free feature, but there will be premium bits on top of that for the expansion. The team are also giving more tools for multiplayer groups in terms of being able to set ‘rules’ that players in the server have to adhere too. This is largely based on existing player behaviour (with some servers having rules that span 20 pages) and is a way to code-in similar features to make it easier for people.

A lot of the above was already revealed in the initial news piece, and while we have quite a few other titbits we could share, the main issue right now is that Man the Guns is still very early in development. They’re not even sure if it’ll be out this year, and there are only a few things they’ve actually started coding.

Hearts of Iron 4 is standing tall despite its lingering problems, and is now more confident in what kind of game it wants to be. It may not be the wargame it once was, but striving forward to be a more accessible yet authentic WW2 sandbox is not a bad thing.

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